“When they sent me to Rikers Island, I was 16. I would say it was like hell on Earth. Sometimes, you know, I feel like I’m never going to be the same. You know, I smile, and I joke a lot. But, you know, deep down, I’m a mess because like I’m 21, and on the inside I feel like I’m 40.” – The late Kalief Browder – Time: The Kalief Browder Story
Spike’s documentary series Time: The Kalief Browder Story exposes our broken U.S. justice system through the tragic story of Kalief Browder—a young black man who committed suicide in 2015 after spending three years on New York City’s Riker’s Island prison for allegedly stealing a backpack.
Browder fought to clear his name until he could not fight any longer. With help from public officials and other media outlets, Spike is picking up where he left off.
Spike’s series is a six-part documentary depicting Browder’s inhumane treatment by correctional officers and fellow inmates at the notoriously violent prison. According to the documentary—which uses archival interviews with Browder, footage from prison security tapes, and interviews with correctional officers to tell his tragic story—the teen was beaten, taunted, starved, and deprived of psychological care after multiple suicide attempts.
The documentary narrates how Browder ended up in Rikers as a result of racial profiling and police ineptitude, and languished at the prison for over three years because bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption.
“It was hell on earth, we were beaten, stomped by the correctional officers, they would [handcuff] me and beat me in my cell,” recalled Browder in archival interview footage obtained by Spike (used throughout the series).
The documentary is aptly titled. “Browder’s tragedy is about time lost, time stopped and time squandered,” wrote Newsday critic Verne Gay.
The tragic story can also be told through numbers, which starkly demonstrate how a 16-year-old was allowed to rot in prison for over three years without a trial or conviction.
The numbers of Kalief Browder’s story:
$3,000: The amount of money set for Browder’s bail after he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack (a backpack that was never found). According to archived footage of interviews with Browder and his late mother, Venida Browder, their family could not afford his freedom.
“If you have enough money, you can go home,” explained political commentator Van Jones in the second episode. “But if you’re poor, you have to sit here until your trial or until you plead … [For black inmates;] crime is that they’re poor.”
Zero: The amount of evidence collected from Browder when police first searched him—no weapons or drugs, and absolutely no stolen backpack.
Raul, the alleged victim, spoke to Spike over the phone for the series. He first called the police and alleged that “two black guys” stole his backpack. A week later, Browder and his friend were detained by the police because, according the documentary, they fit this vague description.
Throughout Browder’s time on Riker’s Island, the backpack never turned up—and neither did any other sort of evidence tying him to the crime.
30: The number of times Browder rode the prison bus back and forth from Riker’s Island to the Bronx County Courthouse without a proper trial.
Occasionally Browder’s court date was delayed because there were no courtrooms available, and once because the prosecutor’s legal assistant was on vacation.
An attorney without direct connection to Browder’s case, Scott Levy of the Bronx Defenders, explained how New York is the only state in the U.S. where the courts can prolong trials almost indefinitely, for frivolous reasons and bureaucratic ineptitude.
Browder turned down multiple plea bargains, even one towards the end of his time at Rikers that would allow him to leave immediately if he admitted guilt.
Browder knew he wasn’t guilty, however, and wouldn’t admit to something he hadn’t done—even if it caused him further mental and physical deterioration on Rikers. Fellow inmates told Browder he was stupid for turning down plea bargains, according to the series. But Browder was resilient; only wanting to leave Rikers with a verdict of innocence and his name cleared.
“I’m not taking this deal,” said Browder. “Half of you wanted to get out of there, and half of you didn’t want to leave off the strength of a principle…anger towards the way the system was running. I didn’t think it was fair.”
Over 900: The number of days Browder spent in solitary confinement. Guards appeared to use this punishment haphazardly, throwing Browder in isolation for the first time for defending himself against a group of inmates who jumped him and spat in his face.
“I stood up for what was right, even when I was in jail,” said Browder.
5-6: The number of times Browder attempted suicide in prison.
In March 2012, Browder attempted to strangle himself with his bedsheets. The guards found him and waited a few minutes before letting him down. According to Browder, it was because they wanted him to suffer. After they saved his life, they began beating him. Footage shows Browder running out of his cell past a security camera, so the abuse would be documented.
22: Browder’s age when took his life.
Executive producer Jay-Z wants to see change come from this documentary. At a town hall discussion on March 8, which aired on Spike before the series premiere, Jay-Z spoke about what we need to do to avoid losing another Kalief Browder to the system. “We have the power, these government officials work for us,” said Jay-Z. “We have to be a collective. We need everyone to be talking about this.”
On the show’s website, Spike offers ways to take action, including a link to the proposed Kalief’s Law. This piece of legislation aims to establish time limits for a speedy trial in New York State. Spike also suggests taking a look at the Innocence Project, a movement to prevent wrongful convictions—or in Browder’s case, wrongful incarcerations without convictions.
The final episode airs Wednesday, March 29 on Spike.
Visit the website to watch previous episodes, and learn more about Browder and the fight for prison reform.